One of the more interesting conversations I had at the Acoustica show last week involved talking about loyalty to members of the general public. Here were people who had been shopping at the same store for decades, and using the same brands for decades. In addition, the brands they used had been supplied by the store for decades. There were some new bloods walking through the door, but many people there bought their equipment from the store long ago, and just kept coming back for more.
This is brand loyalty on an epic scale, but it isn’t uncommon in audio.
Many of these regulars were dyed-in-the-wool Naim Audio users, which is perhaps not unexpected given Acoustica’s distinct preference for the Salisbury brand. Of this, there seemed to be a lot of interest in Naim’s streaming devices and downsizing without sacrificing quality, so there were lots of questions about the SuperUniti. Those with existing Naim Audio equipment were looking at adding to, subtracting from, or even substituting components in their Wall Of Naim, but very few were considering a Naim-less future.
There are similar brand loyalties elsewhere in audio. Audio Research, Quad, Vandersteen, and Wilson owners are known for their devotion to their respective brands, with as many as nine out of every 10 owners saying their next purchase would be from the same brand. However, there’s another potential issue here; are the customers loyal to the brand, or the supplier of the brand?
That was one of the interesting aspects of the Acoustica show. Many visitors were Naim Audio users and the vast majority were Acoustica customers. They were loyal to the brand, but to which brand? My suspicion is, in fact, that they are loyal to the combination. Acoustica’s customers trust Acoustica to not supply products from audio’s shady or shoddy side, and one of Acoustica’s most trusted brands is Naim Audio.
Generally, the names associated with loyal followings make their mark (whether manufacturers, distributors or dealers) engender and develop that loyalty by providing service above and beyond the call of duty. After a Friday ‘get-in’, a Saturday and Sunday demonstrating and a Sunday evening ‘get-out’, a typical demonstration team will do everything in their power to get back to the office on Monday morning. What they won’t do is make a 250-mile detour to check the connections on the system of a visually-impaired customer, because his local dealer has gone out of business. But that’s precisely what Naim’s people did, and can you imagine that customer buying a product that didn’t have a Naim badge after that? (Note for our American readers: I know a 250-mile round trip doesn’t sound too big a deal to you guys, but in a land where you are never more than 50 miles from potentially needing to wave a passport at someone, it’s a bit like taking a quick detour to Phoenix while driving from New York to Boston).
There’s a commonality here. Manufacturers who engender that kind of ‘go the extra mile’ ethos in their staff tend to work with like-minded distributors and dealers. Similarly, dealers or distributors who have a similar ‘the client always comes first’ ideology will look for manufacturers that adopt the same mind-set.
However, this unwritten social contract extends in to the customer too. We are all after a good deal, but those who will happily ride roughshod over a working relationship with a store in search of shaving a few extra per cent off the price risk destroying that trust. That doesn’t just mean you’ll be more likely to get the brush off next time you try to evaluate a product; it might just mean the next time you turn up, that store simply isn’t there any more.
I had a similar issue with photography a few years ago. There was a fine store in central London called Kingsley Photographic. The staff was friendly, exceptionally knowledgeable, and more intent on building a long-term relationship with a customer, than pushing the shiny new toy in the short term irrespective of the longer view. As a consequence, customers frequently walked in with a query about one of its brands and ended up buying endless bags, lenses, flashes, tripods, darkroom equipment and the rest over the course of several years. Not because they pushed you, because you trusted them. Then, the combination of spiralling rents, and people using the store as a free demonstration facility for the internet, drove the company out of business. It’s now a food store, in a row of food stores.
I think the future of audio retail (and high-grade retail in general) is a bespoke, service-driven one. The cookie-cutter, off-the-peg systems are best served online, as price and delivery are key indicators in product
Our social contracts in audio need redrawing; the way the 21st Century has panned out for the bricks and mortar, that has already happened, but the process needs more nuancing. For the suppliers of products, you need to ‘go the extra mile’ as standard, and those who treat potential customers as irritants or marks need to shape up, or ship out. And for the customers, you need to remember that you are buying a service as much as a product, and relearn to place your trust in those you can trust. And we all need to remember that to achieve a deep discount, you often end up discounting an important part of the service.
Too often, when you buy cheap, you buy twice.